Photography by Jon Shermack
The room is quiet. Patrons sip from their glasses and gingerly bite duck medallions in a cherry guinette sauce, appreciating the synthesis of the food and beverage pairing. Are they drinking a fruity merlot, or an oaky chardonnay? Neither.
On this particular night, they are sampling a 2007 Cantillon Lou Pepe Kriek – a rare, tart Belgian beer in the “lambic” style.
At Gini’s Restaurant, these patrons enjoy one of Edmonton’s first food and beer pairing evenings. The wine world is familiar with such events, but this kind of thing is new for beer. While the thought of pairing food and beer may seem alien to most Edmontonians, we should get used to it, because beer is growing up.
It’s evolving beyond the sports-bar-and-nachos crowd. Increasingly, beer is being seen as a beverage to be savoured and appreciated. In the past two years, Edmontonians have witnessed many new opportunities to sample and consider good beer.
The bulk of beer we drink is of one particular sub-style – the pale North American lager. However there are more than 80 beer styles, ranging from light, fruity ales to red ales and dark lagers, to wheat-and rye-based to inky black stouts. Because beer has multiple ingredients, brewers have limitless possible combinations, making it an ideal beverage for pairing with food.
Community and charity groups have discovered the appeal in beer tasting. Last year, Sherbrooke Liquor store and Alley Kat Brewing Company kick-started Sherbrooke Alberta Beer, Art and Music (SHABAM), a week-long celebration, with proceeds going to the Kidney Foundation of Canada. These casual affairs allow patrons to sip on small samples (50 to 100 millilitres each) of dozens of different beers, mostly from our province. (As a beer aficionado, I try to avoid the big beer “festivals.” They’re just too loud, too big and too full of people interested in getting drunk, which does nothing for beverage appreciation.)
Because the resources for beer-making exist on every continent, beer is inherently a very local drink, and therefore much of beer appreciation is about valuing what happens in our backyard. A perfect example is the popular “cask” evening.
Cask ale is a traditional English form of serving beer, where the fermented, unfiltered beer is transferred to a cask, often with extra hops or spices added. After a couple of weeks to naturally carbonate, the beer is tapped and served directly, without the aid of tap lines or pressurized gas. The result is a softer, fuller beer that tastes fresh and complex with fewer bubbles, and this smoother flavour has made cask events very popular.
Usually highlighting locally-produced beer, cask events are anchors in the world-wide beer community. Two years ago, they were non-existent in Edmonton. Today there are two different cask events every month, the first at SugarBowl and the second at the Next Act Pub, with rumours of more coming soon.
According to Abel Shiferaw, owner of the SugarBowl, the beer usually only lasts for about 60 minutes before the cask is empty. “It is a unique experience. It really creates a buzz in the beer community,” says Shiferaw.
“It is a celebration of beer and friends,” says Neil Herbst, co-owner of Edmonton’s Alley Kat Brewing and brewer of the SugarBowl’s casks. “There is a real cross-section of people, all getting together to celebrate unique, locally brewed beer. One thing I find particularly interesting is how many women, especially young women, show up to try the various kinds of beer.”
Another way the world of beer may open to women and others the market has often regarded as “non-beer drinkers” is through beer dinners. An offshoot of the well-known wine dinner, beer dinners epitomize the potential in beer appreciation. Again, two years ago there was nary a restaurant willing to gamble on culinary pairings with beer. Today there are at least five restaurants committed to doing semi-regular beer dinners. “It may sound strange but beer is far more versatile than wine,” says Cyrilles Koppert, owner and head chef for Urban Diner, which occasionally hosts beer dinners. “You can reduce it, produce vinaigrettes, glazes and other interesting flavours. You can use it with all your meats, unlike wine. Beer can also be used in desserts and dressings. You do have to be careful, though. Too much and the bitterness comes out. For me, as a chef, it is way more fun.”
There are two basic approaches. The more common is to pick a specific brewery or theme, such as English ales, and design dishes that pair well with a range of different styles. This allows for diversity across the menu and the beer palate. Often the beer is included as an ingredient in the dish. For example, Manor Cafe, at a beer dinner with Seattle’s Pike Brewing, created a stilton and parsnip soup made with Pike’s Naughty Nellie Golden Artisan Ale. The soup brought the sharp, earthy character accented by a crisp parsnip with a touch of sweetness contributed by the Nellie. The beer’s light fruitiness and slightly sharp finish unified the soup’s duality to complete the flavour circle.
The second approach is a bit more challenging. Gini’s Restaurant and Sherbrooke Liquor Store occasionally select rare and complex beer styles to pair with French-inspired dishes. A recent meal was built from a selection of beer aged in oak barrels. Oak adds a woodsy, vanilla complexity to a beer and can be very difficult
to pair. However, Gini’s executive chef and owner, Mark Gjini, was up to the task. He produced a series of dishes that accented different aspects of the beer. One particular success combined a tiramisu with Ola Dubh Special Reserve 16, which is a rich, dark old ale aged in 16-year-old malt scotch barrels. The beer’s rich, complex, chocolate earthiness added a new flavour layer to the light coffee and cream character of the cake.
Koppert predicts more restaurants will have beer dinners. “It is because they are
more relaxed than wine dinners. They are not as intimidating and so they draw out a younger, more curious crowd. Plus the explosion of craft brewing has really opened up flavour possibilities.”
Koppert even offers a possible sneak peak into his next beer pairing dish: “Maybe mac and cheese with beer sauce? Put some lobster or strong cheeses in it – that would be good.”
The Next Act Pub (8224 104 St.)
First Tuesday of every month, 6 p.m.
SugarBowl (10922 88 Ave.)
Third Thursday of every month, 5 p.m.
Restaurants hosting occasional beer dinners
Cafe Haven (9 Sioux Rd., Sherwood Park)
Continental Treat Fine Bistro (10560 82 Ave.)
Manor Cafe (10109 125 St.)
SugarBowl (10922 88 Ave.)
Urban Diner (8715 109 St.)
Beer stores with a broad selection allowing you
to do your own beer tasting evening
– Bin 104 Fine Wine and Spirits (5454 Calgary Tr.)
– Chateau Louis Liquor (11727 Kingsway Ave.)
– Little Guy Liquor (126, 270 Baseline Rd.,
– Sherwood Park)
– Sherbrooke Liquor (11819 St Albert Tr.)
Alley Kat Full Moon Pale Ale: A locally-made, citrusy pale ale that’s versatile in its pairing possibilities. This copper beer has enough light caramel malt sweetness to balance its sharp, piney hops. Though great on its own, it fits equally well with a spicy pad Thai or a hearty bison burger and sweet potato fries.
Ola Dubh Special Reserve 30: The finest of the Ola Dubh series by Scottish brewer Harviestoun. It ages the Old Engine Oil ale for three months in oak barrels that formerly held 30-year-old Highland Park single malt scotch. It starts with a rich molasses and chocolate sweetness and then rises with a strong oak character, some sharp scotch alcohol, a bit of smoke and noticeable vanilla, butterscotch and red fruit. It’s a very deep, complex beer that pairs well with a hearty stew or smoky cheese or, alternatively, a rich, high-cocoa chocolate. The reserve 16 and 12 (pictured) are also available and, in fact, easier to obtain.
Yellowhead Premium Lager: Edmonton’s newest brewery offers up a classic German pale lager styled after Helle’s that reflects German brewing tradition. It’s a soft golden beer with a gentle pilsner malt sweetness topped off with a floral hop bitterness in the back. The bitterness is moderate and adds a refreshing character. It pairs well with any traditional German dish, and it also holds up well with pork medallions or even chicken in a rich tomato-based sauce.